As James VI and I of Scotland, England and Ireland lay dying – plagued by myriad maladies – his favourite George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham and the last in a line of handsome young favourites to share in the king’s favour, waited on his bedside until he finally passed in March 1625. Inevitably he was accused of poisoning his king – such accusations were common currency where men or women shared a closeness to their monarchs that put other noses out of joint – and he was the subject of an inconclusive parliamentary investigation.
Long dismissed as dirty tricks from Villiers’s rivals or propaganda to discredit James’s successor, Charles I, Benjamin Woolley now believes otherwise. His new book The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I (available in hardback from 24 August) re-examines the evidence that Villiers may have indeed poisoned his patron, and lays bare the upstart’s motive. We spoke to Woolley to find out more…
What do we now know about the Villiers case that the investigation of the time did not that leads you to revisit the accusations that Villiers was responsible for the king’s death?
The revisit was a result of an accident – while researching my book on 17th-century medicine The Herbalist, I came across some garbled notes originally discovered in the archives of Earl of Lonsdale at Lowther Castle in Cumbria. They were by a ‘Mr Lowther’, probably John, MP for Westmorland, and included a fragmentary record of secret parliamentary investigations into the last hours of James’s death. The focus was an unauthorised ‘potion and plaster’ that George Villiers and his mother Mary administered to James in the final days of his life, when they thought the king was recovering. On a hunch, I emailed a dossier of the evidence to John Henry, a founding member of the National Poisons Information Service at Guy’s Hospital and Professor of Accident and Emergency Medicine at Imperial College. He was also the doctor who made the sensational breakthrough in the case of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, identifying the toxin used to murder him as a radioactive substance. He did not initially respond to my email, which was to be expected of a busy doctor, and I gave no more thought to the matter. Then, several months later, he rang me out of the blue to say he thought James had been poisoned, and he even thought he knew the likely toxin.
What do we know of James VI and I’s death that fits the profile of a poisoning?
James fell ill with malaria, a common disease at the time (it was known as ‘tertian fever’ because of the distinctive pattern of feverish attacks), and was well on the way to recovery. Then George Villiers and his mother Mary turned up at the king’s bedside, and, overruling the doctors, administered a ‘plaster and potion’ to the king which provoked a series of fits. It was the description of those fits as described in the Lowther notes that led John Henry to conclude the king had probably been poisoned.
James’ previous favourite, Sir Thomas Overbury, was rumoured to have been poisoner by his jailers. This was before Villiers entered the king’s orbit but there’s an interesting symmetry to it. Is there a direct connection between the two alleged poisonings or was it simply de rigueur in the Stuart court?
Overbury, who was a friend of James’s favourite, Robert Carr, died in 1613 under suspicious circumstances while in the Tower of London. Rumours surfaced two years later that he had been poisoned, and Carr’s wife Frances Howard, whose marriage to the favourite Overbury had tried to prevent, was accused of having killed him. The Villiers and Overbury cases do have a symmetry, in that they show how accusations of poisoning could be a potent political weapon. The difference is that the testimony that convicted Howard was obtained under threat of torture, whereas the evidence produced by the doctors concerning James was volunteered freely.
The king’s declared intention to make Villiers his “wife” is obviously interesting, what can the choice of words tell us about their relationship?
As Shakespeare’s plays show us, attitudes to gender during the Jacobean period were more fluid than might be expected. James’s declaration was one of love—I believe sexual as well as emotional. His marriage to Queen Anne (also known as Anna) had produced an heir (and spare), but was loveless. His
feelings for Villiers, on the other hand, had an overwhelming intensity that combined both paternal and conjugal impulses—a volatile mix that would lead to him pleading to George to become his wife.
The relationship between the two is thought to have been sexual, both in court gossip and in some contemporary readings, does anything you’ve discovering in the course of The King’s Assassin shed light on that?
Controversy over whether or not James had a sexual interest in men seems to me to be a legacy of Victorian prudery. Writings about and by James concerning his relationship with his various favourites are replete with obvious even overt sexual references, such as when the king writes a love poem to his first favourite Esme Stuart, imagining him taking the form of a bird that nestles between James’s legs.
What did Villiers have to gain from killing James and what became of the royal favourite under Charles I?
Villiers spelled out his motive. A year before James’s death, Villiers, now closely allied with James’s impressionable heir Charles, was in a bitter struggle with the king over Britain’s future. Following the outbreak of the Thirty Years War on the Continent, the favourite and the heir wanted to break ties with Spain, Europe’s superpower, and—you could say—take back control by establishing a bold new tone of economic and military assertiveness. James obstructed these plans. They would destroy his entire foreign policy. In frustration, Villiers threatened that if James could not ‘accommodate himself’ to his and Charles’s ‘counsels’, the king should be given ‘a house of pleasure whither he might retire himself to his sports’. When James ignored this proposal, Villiers reached for a more desperate remedy.
Following James’s death, Villiers’s enemies assumed the favourite’s ascendancy would come to an end. If anything, Villiers became more powerful under Charles.
Benjamin Woolley’s new book The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I is available on 24 August, priced £20. For more royal intrigues, subscribe to History of Royals and get every issue delivered straight to your drawbridge.